Sex addiction and the Internet: A Thought from Two Therapists

Sex addiction and the Internet: A Thought from Two Therapists

We met Dr. Serenella Feduzi and Dr. Elena Mattioli, respectively the director and the coordinator of the San Nicola Centre in Arcevia (Ancona, Italy): two therapists who manage the diagnosis and treatment of various forms of addiction (alcohol, drugs, gambling, and others). What intrigued us at Family and Media was a focus on Internet-related sex addiction. Can pornographic images, videos, or chat rooms become addictive? What is an addiction? When is it born? What are the deepest causes? Here are some answers...

Addiction: what is it and how does it originate?

It must be said that everything can become an object of addiction. We often think of alcohol, drugs, gambling. But one can also become addicted to something else, for example, to one's work or, indeed, to sex. Addiction always satisfies a hidden need on the surface. It brings apparent relief to a wound that is below the threshold of awareness. Addiction always springs from a sense of inadequacy, or from deep insecurity, or low self-esteem. The object of dependence becomes "compensatory."

How do you recognize an addiction? What if you move away from the object that creates it?

Every dependency has these characters or steps: compulsion (an unstoppable need to approach the desired object), tolerance (you get used to an initially sporadic behavior), habituation (you can no longer do without that object or that behavior).

It is not enough to physically remove the object of obsession from the person in order to make him heal: addiction is a symptom, which reveals something deeper, something that must emerge, because it needs healing. It is necessary to dig and understand what is hidden "underneath."

Sexuality, youth and the Internet. What can you tell us?

That on the one hand today sex is easily "flaunted" and exploited (just think of the advertisements, where sex is used as bait to sell something), on the other hand there is a lack of reference figures for young people who can allow them to calmly approach the discovery of such an important human dimension, which is sexuality.

The grown-ups are often quiet on these issues because they themselves feel shame. Boys going through puberty don’t know whom to talk to about their feelings or whom to ask their questions. And they often go to their peers, or look for answers...

On the Internet?

Exactly. While the parent prefers not to get to the bottom of it (moving right past the “sex talk”), the digital world offers a lot of stimuli, many of which, however, kids can't handle. The Internet can be a valuable tool. The problem arises when a child, finding himself alone with his questions, goes to type them on a search engine. Anything could pop up: images, videos, pages that are inadequate for his inner research. The experience, which in his intentions had to be "cognitive," becomes traumatic.

Parents sometimes think that as long as their child is "locked in a room," he is safe and can handle being in there all alone. They don't know that for kids growing up in a digital world, there is another life online, which is beyond their control and that it is much riskier to leave preadolescent children in front of a computer, in the middle of a virtual town-square than in an actual town-square square near home.

A parent often will ask their child what he or she did at school, but does he or she might not ever ask what he or she does on the Internet. On the Internet, the child often does what he feels he can't do in the real world...

Why is sex addiction born? What triggers it?

It must be said that we are beings essentially dependent: a child, before becoming independent, is "addicted," must experience containment, wrapping. The person who develops a pathological addiction, actually without knowing it, is looking for that sense of belonging, which is inherent in his nature, and has not found an adequate response at the right time.

For clarity: behind every addiction there is never a single cause. It is a multifactorial pathology. You know Tetris, the interlocking game? There are many situations, suffering, and unexpected needs that give rise to an addiction. Of course, one can identify a triggering event, but in order for the addiction to grow, it must find a fertile ground, set up by many different factors (at home, at school, in interactions with peers...).

The symptom for us is a "messenger," the deepest causes must always be sought in childhood, in the first years of life, in the "affections" with which we grew up. It also applies to sex addiction.

What does an addiction like that lead to?

Addiction, it should be noted, always leads to isolation. And it's really hard to intervene, especially if the person doesn't want help.

It should also be kept in mind that the surrounding environment often covers up the addiction and keeps it alive. Think of a wife who finds out that her husband is addicted to pornography. What does she do? She forces him to stop. He accepts, so as to not lose her, but the wound of the addiction remains open. The two’s relationship suffers, he falls back into the habit. He hasn't decided to cure himself, pornography is not yet seen as his problem: what he cares about is making his wife happy - and the addiction remains. Every time he falls, he apologizes, his wife is frustrated, but she forgives him, perhaps even denies the problem because it would hurt too much to look at it squarely. In this way, they both fuel the addiction instead of breaking it. These spouses are lying in a "comfort zone."

What can a woman do in such cases to help him and herself and save the marriage?

A wife who sees the problem should be clear. "Either you cure yourself or you lose me." It is always the fear of a tear, of a situation seen as more painful than the addiction itself that shakes those who are slaves to an addiction that they do not recognize as such. Also because addiction acts as a palliative, it gives us the impression of gratification.

Incidentally, a woman who accepts this addiction for a long time in her marriage needs therapy herself. Behind the acceptance of such a thing, there are other wounds that deserve to be acknowledged and healed. (We at Family and Media have also talked about pornography in marriage in another article, which we invite you to take a look at).

But how to show the addicted person that he needs help?

Bringing a person reluctantly to therapy doesn't pay off. You can only get treatment if you realize that you are too sick and can’t go on that way, only if you are afraid of losing the people you love the most. Therapy won't be effective if others are forcing you. It has to start from inside, it has to start from you, with a cry for help.

Now, what we see is that pain is always the driving force behind finding a solution. You go on with an addiction, until you hit rock bottom, until you've lost important relationships because of it...

You know the deep-sea divers? The diver goes down as deep as he can. But when he runs out of air, he has to go up again. That's it: when the pain caused by your addiction gets so bad that you can't breathe, that's when you're forced to ask for help.

We at Family and Media would like to end with a message of hope.

There are such tragic situations, such deep sorrows, such deep-rooted misbehaviors, that some people might think they are "lost forever." But we would like to invite you to recognize your value, your potential, to set out on the road back to life. Because you are made for happiness, not despair and, as Pope Francis says, "There is no heart that cannot be reborn with God."

The evil you are experiencing may seem irremediable to you, but be sure that you can still heal, "come out of it.” You can begin today to ask for help, to seek God's love, to entrust yourselves to those who love you and to competent people.

You can begin today to build a different future.

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